The origins of Princeton’s residential college system can be traced to 1906, when Woodrow Wilson, the University’s president at the time, and a member of the Class of 1879, unveiled his "Quad Plan" for the reorganization of undergraduate social and intellectual life.  Wilson's plan called for the creation of "residential quadrangles or colleges, each with its own dining hall, common room, resident head of college, and resident preceptors."[1]  After initially supporting the "Quad Plan," the Trustees reversed themselves when they encountered strong resistance from the eating clubs and alumni.

Wilson's plan was revived and restructured in 1978, when the University's sixteen-member Committee on University Residential Life (CURL) recommended the establishment of a Residential College system for first-year and sophomore students.  Construction of the colleges began in 1981, and the first incoming class was assigned to colleges for the 1982-83 academic year.

On September 25, 1983, University President William G. Bowen dedicated Lee D. Butler College, the fourth residential college to open its doors.  Lee D. Butler (1897-1981), Class of 1922, was born in Dunmore, Pennsylvania and served in the U.S. Army in France during the First World War.  He later became a prominent businessman and civic leader in Washington, D.C.  A loyal Princetonian, he served as an Alumni Trustee and as President of the Princeton Club of Washington, which honored him as the first recipient of its annual award for “outstanding leadership and service in community affairs.”[2]  An initial gift of nearly three million dollars from Lee D. Butler and his wife Margaret Fine Butler ensured that the College would begin its life on a sound foundation.

Another distinguished Princetonian, Hong Kong structural engineer and entrepreneur Sir Gordon Y. S. Wu ’58, donated nearly four and a half million dollars for the construction of the College’s administrative, dining, and social center.  The University named the building Gordon Wu Hall in tribute to his magnanimity.  Renowned architect Robert Venturi ’47, *50, designed Wu Hall with his partner Denise Scott Brown.  Their challenge was to integrate a new structure into the context provided by Butler College’s older buildings: the neo-Jacobean 1915 Hall and the new modern dormitories, designed by architect Hugh Stebbins in the “New Brutalism” style.  The Stebbins dorms had been built to address a shortage of housing during the expansion of Princeton in the mid-1960’s, when speed of construction and lowering costs were both priorities.  Reconciling the two vastly different styles was a challenge, and Venturi described the vision that he and Scott Brown had for Wu Hall in the remarks he made at the dedication ceremony:

"I have said before that we thought of Wu Hall as a hyphen, since it’s a long and narrow building that more or less works to connect the two old buildings the way the hyphen connects two words – often words that are very different in meaning. Wu Hall relates to the old buildings most obviously in terms of material. We made the new building brick, and that in a very clear way promoted unity. We also employed landscape elements to help create a sense of arrival, a sense of place, and a sense of identity when you’re here."[3]  Wu Hall won the American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1984 and became one of Venturi Scott Brown’s most iconic postmodern designs.  The success of the design led to several other Venturi Scott Brown commissions on the Princeton campus, and to a number of commissions at campuses around the country.

When Butler opened, the first Head of College was Emory Elliott (1942-2009), an English professor who wrote seminal works on early American literature, and edited the groundbreaking Columbia Literary History of the United States, the first major multicultural anthology of American literature, published in 1988.  Elliott came from a working-class background in Baltimore, Md., was the first in his family to earn a college degree, and was an important advocate for the expansion of the literary canon to include a more diverse range of voices.[4]  The first Director of Studies at Butler College was Dr. Ruth Simmons, who later went on to become the president of Smith College, and subsequently the president of Brown University, becoming the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution.  Dr. Simmons is currently the president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

In 2005, Butler took over parts of Emma B. Bloomberg Hall, which originally had been opened as a dorm for juniors and seniors.  In June of 2007, the brutalist buildings of the “New New Quad,” along with their notorious "waffle" ceilings, were demolished to make way for the red brick and limestone of the new Butler dormitory complex, designed by the firm of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners.  The complex consists of 1976 Hall, Yoseloff Hall, Bogle Hall, 1967 Hall, and Wilf Hall, which are all united by shared common spaces on their lower levels.  This complex, along with the entirety of Bloomberg Hall, now serve as the Butler dorms.

In 2022, the University announced that First College (formerly Wilson College), Butler’s paired college in the residential college system, would be demolished to make way for Hobson College, a gift of Mellody Hobson ’91, scheduled to be completed in 2026.  As part of this project, 1915 Hall is being demolished, and all of Butler dormitories will now be consolidated in the buildings south of Goheen Walk.  Hobson will be Butler’s new paired college upon completion.

(Revised from the original history written by Dr. Darryl Peterkin, Butler’s Director of Studies, 2004.)


[1] Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, p. 409.

[2] Professor Edward J. Champlin, former Head of Butler College, compiled biographical and alumnus information about Lee D. Butler.

[3] Robert Venturi, Remarks Delivered at the Dedication of Lee D. Butler College, 25 September 1984, p. 8.

[4] Information on Emory Elliott drawn from his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2009